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‘Flexibility has never applied more’: Harford teacher reflects on unorthodox school year that began virtual, ended in person

Fourth-grade teacher Tina Purtell talks with student Chloe Watts as she looks over the gift card inside the thank you card as Watts arrives for the last day of school at Emmorton Elementary School Monday, June 14, 2021.
Fourth-grade teacher Tina Purtell talks with student Chloe Watts as she looks over the gift card inside the thank you card as Watts arrives for the last day of school at Emmorton Elementary School Monday, June 14, 2021. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Emmorton Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Tina Purtell started the 2020-21 school year in September with all of her students on a computer screen, interacting with them from a room in her house.

She ended the year Monday getting hugs, balloons, cards, even flowers from her students as they interacted face-to-face in her classroom.

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“I think it is much more rewarding, ending the year this way,” Purtell said as the children gathered for their morning meeting.

The students, as well as their teacher, wore masks as they interacted with each other or sat their desks — some of which had plexiglass shields on them — doing activities on paper such as word searches or drawing. Some expressed surprise as they came in that the last day of school would be device free, as students throughout Harford County Public Schools have been using laptops daily, whether learning in school or remotely.

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Purtell received a card and a purple orchid from one student, 10-year-old Chloe Watts, who noted that “I feel better” ending the school year in person.

“I wouldn’t be able to give my teachers little gifts, and I wouldn’t be able to give them hugs goodbye,” she said.

The 2020-21 school year also was the last for Chloe at Emmorton, as her family is moving to a new neighborhood and she will attend Homestead-Wakefield Elementary in Bel Air next year.

“I’ve been here since kindergarten, so I’m really going to miss this place,” she said of Emmorton, which is in the Bel Air South area.

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Tina Purtell, a fourth-grade teacher at Emmorton Elementary School, meets her students online Sept. 8, 2020, for the first day of the Harford County Public Schools 2020-21 school year.
Tina Purtell, a fourth-grade teacher at Emmorton Elementary School, meets her students online Sept. 8, 2020, for the first day of the Harford County Public Schools 2020-21 school year. (David Anderson)

The setting was very different on Sept. 8, the first day of school. Purtell was in a room in her house, set up to resemble a classroom, and her 21 fourth-graders were on a computer screen — the class was connected via Microsoft Teams.

It was an unorthodox start to Purtell’s 10th year as an educator with HCPS, but she stressed maintaining a positive attitude and keeping the experience as close to being in school as possible.

“We’re still learning and being the best Emmorton Eagles,” she said at the time.

Harford County Public Schools’ more than 37,000 students started the year learning virtually from home or Learning Support Centers in school buildings and interacting with their teachers online in order to remain safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most of the past year has been virtual, except for a few weeks in school in late October and early November as the number of COVID cases in Harford County appeared to decline — HCPS went back to virtual classes as the local positivity rate shot up during the fall.

Elementary students returned to school on a hybrid basis in early March, followed by middle and high schoolers in mid-March. Students finished the year in school four days a week, although families had the option of continuing remote learning.

“The word ‘flexibility’ has never applied more to teaching than it has this year,” said Purtell, who ended the year with 14 students in-person and seven remaining virtual, appearing via the electronic whiteboard at the front of the classroom.

Purtell is sad about not being able to spend the whole year with her students in person, but she has stressed building relationships with them, whether in person or virtually. She also saw some students outside of school when out and about in the community.

“This is a very good group of kids,” she said.

Student Chloe said it was a little harder to learn virtually, compared to being in school, as she dealt with a sometimes “glitchy” computer, and challenges such as difficulty hearing her teacher or raising her hand electronically in Teams.

“I like it better here, because I get to see everyone,” she said.

Her classmate, Logan Pecor, also noted the challenges of being in class virtually, versus face-to-face learning.

“Now that it’s in person, we can do our work even if the computer doesn’t work,” Logan, 10, said.

One advantage to learning at home was being able to lie in his bed during breaks, but at school, Logan can ask his teacher questions, see his friends, “and you can play on the playground,” he said.

“You can’t deny the social aspect [of school],” Purtell said. “That really impacts the students.”

She noted how the past year has shown how resilient the students could be. Students and teachers also have experienced benefits from different pieces of technology being incorporated into the classroom, and it will be helpful in future years, Purtell said.

On the last day of school, she showed a movie, read aloud and had students complete their “words of wisdom” for next year’s incoming fourth graders, which will be posted on a bulletin board.

“The kids are happy,” she said. “I think they’ve all benefited from being in school — they’re ready for a break.”

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